Thursday, November 15, 2018

The midterms 2018: Romney's retrofit


AMONG THE fresh-faced freshmen wandering the halls of the Senate in Washington recently was a familiar one, previously experienced in government and, importantly, in politics. His election has mostly managed to fly under the radar, but that won’t last. It cant last. Mitt Romney may want to go back to the future (with some changes from the past).

Romney, former Massachusetts governor and 2012 White House aspirant, defeated Jenny Wilson, his Democratic challenger, in a contest that wasn’t really even close (61 percent to 33 percent). A longtime Utahn, he parlayed that long-term status, and his previous elective and campaign experience, to a big win on Election Night.

“During the next six years, I commit to devote my heart, my mind and my energy to be worthy of the trust that as the voters of Utah have given me,” the senator-elect said in a victory speech at his campaign headquarters — the ritual promise of a newly-elected politician.

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Out of everyone in American politics, and certainly anyone else in the Senate, Romney is the one that President* Trump must necessarily keep a side-eye on at all times. Romney made his missteps in 2012, but since then, he’s positioned himself well — picking his spots, strategically writing op-eds and making targeted comments about House Trump and its policies.

Romney’s been steadily working on a retrofit of the 2012 model Mitt, laying the groundwork for the public to see him as the centrist pragmatist he never was in ’12. He could be the ideal Republican antidote to the poison of the Trump presidency — a palatable alternative to four more years of the tweeter-in-chief.

But if he has any desires to pursue another run for the White House, he’ll have to navigate the elephant’s memory of the voters, who vividly remember another Mitt Romney entirely.

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THERE’S MUCH to recommend the man. Romney would bring experience to bear that Trump can only dream of. One term as governor of the republic of Massachusetts, architect of the template for Obamacare, rescuer of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, successful businessman. He’d be a presumptive shoo-in for the nomination if his political biography ended there.

But of course it doesn’t end there. In several important and disquieting ways, Romney’s history on the campaign trail has interesting parallels with Trump’s own. Never mind the fact that Romney is in lockstep with many of Trump’s policies. Romney in 2012 was his own secretive beast; he claimed that his presumably transformative tax plan couldn’t be scored for its accuracy by tax experts (he made sure of that by refusing to release the details).

Romney released only limited amounts of his tax returns, not understanding that release of those returns was a basic indicator of his belief in transparency in government.

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Then there’s the problem of Romney’s history of somersaults on various important positions. Abortion for example. Romney backed Roe v. Wade and abortion rights in 1993, before running to be governor of Massachusetts. In an October 1994 debate with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, Romney said Americans should “sustain and support” Roe v. Wade. “I want it to remain the law of the land.”

In March 2002, when he announced plans to run for governor, Romney was full-throated in defending Roe, saying “I will protect the right of a woman to choose.” Then in June 2007 he began his presidential campaign and all but swore fealty to the anti-abortion cause at the National Right to Life Convention. Then in December 2011, he told Fox News that “I will support [Roe v. Wade] and preserve the law as it exists.”

Then in March 2012, Romney said he’d “get rid” of Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion counseling and a broad range of women’s health services — an implicit rejection of those services and Roe v. Wade itself. Trump’s been no less elusive, and no more conclusive.

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ROMNEY jumped on the birther train (like Trump), wrongly calling President Obama’s national origin into question, and cementing that malignant catechism in the Republican campaign playbook. In all the ways that mattered, Romney jumped in and out of a position on everything under the sun; he was topically inconsistent, thematically unreliable. On the things that mattered to Americans, we couldn’t be sure which Mitt Romney would show up and stay put.

It was the kind of situational politics that already led Erick Erickson, editor of RedState, to write in late 2011 that Romney “is a man devoid of any principles other than getting himself elected. As much as the American public does not like Barack Obama, they loath a man so fueled with ambition that he will say or do anything to get himself elected. Mitt Romney is that man.”

But there was a bedrock conviction. Tragically, it was the wrong one. All of his previous goofs and gaffes and unforced errors were prelude to the event in a private fundraising dinner in Boca Raton, Fla., when Romney let his guard down with others of his station, spoke his true mind and destroyed what was left of his flailing campaign.

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On the night of May 17, 2012, a bartender with a voice recorder and an ear for what makes news (and history) recorded Romney talking to a crowd, strategizing about what it would take to win in November. And the candidate volunteered his vision of America, a kind of a culling of the herd.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what …These are people who pay no income tax. ...

Four months later, Joan Walsh, a top editor at Salon, spoke to MSNBC about the Romney juggernaut, then in the slow-motion, timed-release process of falling apart thanks to the monstrously ill-timed “47 percent” comment. She distilled the statement for what it was: “It’s contempt for everybody. It’s equal opportunity contempt, and it’s hugely damaging.”

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IN NOVEMBER 2012, after the deal went down in the election, I observed this: “What doomed Mitt Romney’s campaign, almost from the beginning, was the built-in sense of entitlement the candidate brought to bear in every manifestation of the campaign. It was implicit in his superior bearing, in the vast wealth that was a family trademark, in the self-satisfied smirk on his face at every interview and debate performance.

“That sense of being the smartest one in the room is, in and of itself, not a deal-breaker. Every presidential candidate buys into that, in his or her own way. But Romney also imparted that sense of really, truly believing he was better than everyone else. Above everyone around him.”

If Romney does decide to take a shot in 2020, that’s what he’ll have to overcome: that sense of privilege, of to-the-manor-born that separates him, by a crack or a chasm, from the people he would propose to lead.

In 2012, Romney was a willing captive of his own considerable fortune, wealth that Romney never let people forget about. The car elevators. The showy debate-stage $100 bets. The $77,000 tax exemption he wrangled in the form of a horse entered into the London Olympics. The $25,000 in fireworks he’d purchased before the election returns came in, in the certainty they’d be used after he won the election.

In 2012, Mitt Romney reinforced a corrosive distinction between himself and 47 percent of the country, one buoyed by the notion that he's better than the people of his nation. If he’s serious about pursuing the presidency in 2020, before he’s too old to do what that pursuit requires, he needs to build a distinction between himself and 100 percent of Donald Trump — making sure that that difference is deep and cleaving, and more than just imagistic ... more than just better hair.

Image credits: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News. Weathervane: castaccents.com. Screen grab from Boca Raton video: © 2016 Scott Prouty. Romney Eth a Sketch: gvartwork.com.

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